Winning With Ecosystems

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled “Competing With Cisco”. It has been a few years, and since I have been in the VAR space for almost 3 years now, I have a slightly different perspective. One thing I didn’t really touch on too much in that article was the powerful ecosystem that surrounds Cisco. I’ve seen it win many deals over the past several years and thought it was worth writing about. Perhaps you already know the power of that ecosystem.

I feel sorry for smaller technology vendors. They face an uphill climb when going against the 800lb gorillas. Interestingly enough, I have often wondered about that phrase. Perusing the Wikipedia article on “800lb gorilla”(That site really does have everything!), it gives a riddle:

Q: Where does an 800lb gorilla sit?
A: Anywhere it wants to.

For people within the greater networking space, that 800lb gorilla is Cisco. It has been that way for a number of years, and will likely continue that trend for years to come. Although there are numerous competitors, time and time again, they fail to take substantial market share from Cisco. While Cisco does make many fantastic products, there are plenty of other vendors that do a better job in certain areas. Occasionally, they achieve market share greater than the competing Cisco product and reach the level of acceptance in the market to where Cisco is not the first name that comes to mind when it pertains to that particular technology. This is not the norm though.

I’ve tried to honestly look at networking vendors over the past several years and determine who had the best technology for each given situation. It wasn’t always like that though. For years, I succumbed to the marketing engine of Cisco and associated networking with that name, and that name alone. I chalk that up to either laziness, lack of knowledge, or both. I made design choices based on my comfort level with Cisco, and didn’t really entertain other vendors because it was just too easy to buy one more Catalyst switch.

Somewhere along the way I changed. I’m not sure I can point to a specific event that made me consider others, but I think a lot of it had to do with simply being exposed to alternatives. This change was similar to the OS wars that I got sucked into back in the 90’s. Windows had dominated, but once I got exposed to Unix and Linux, I begin to see things differently. It wasn’t that I loathed Microsoft. Rather, I begin to see use cases where Unix or Linux was a better fit. Over the years, I began to look more at the technology as opposed to the vendor. I don’t really care too much about cost. I care about solving the problem for the business. Now, I should point out that my experience has been that 9 out of 10 vendors can solve 90% of the problems out there. There are a fair amount of features within a given hardware/software platform that are commoditized. Switching is switching for the most part. I can deploy Brocade, Cisco, HP, or Juniper on most customer networks and they will all work just fine. Same with wireless. Occasionally, there are some compelling differentiators that push one vendor to the top based on the customer needs, but generally speaking, it doesn’t matter to me. They will all work. The big differences between the vendors will show up when you start comparing their ecosystems.

The Death of My Idealism

I’m coming up on my third year in the VAR space. I worked for a smaller VAR several years back, but it ended up being mostly SMB work, and was more break/fix than project based, so I don’t put it on the same level as the work I am doing now. There was far less selling in that role, and I pretty much just cranked out fixes to existing gear as opposed to proposing new solutions. In my current position, there are a couple of things I have had to come to terms with over the past several years.

First, you can’t always sell what you prefer. Nobody can successfully sell for a massive amount of different vendors and be any good at it when it comes time to implement. I have a hard enough time with just a handful of vendors based on the level of technical depth I need to implement things successfully. That’s just the reality I have come to accept. I may be a fan of a certain vendor, but if we don’t sell for them, it doesn’t matter. Maybe we do sell for them, but if they are not our lead vendor for a particular technology, they won’t necessarily be brought to the table on the first pass. However, if another VAR has deal registration with our lead vendor in a given technology, we can always come in with another vendor we sell for in the same space. Deal registration is VERY important as it ensures a much larger discount(usually) to the VAR that pitched that vendor first. This is just the way the business works. As long as each vendor will do the job(see my comment about 9 out of 10 vendors above), I have no problem pitching one over the other. I don’t have to lie and I don’t have to compromise my integrity to sell for a vendor in one deal and sell against them in another deal. They ALL have strengths and they ALL have weaknesses.

Second, the power of the vendor ecosystem is one that CANNOT be ignored. Companies want assurances that their people will be able to support the hardware and software that they buy. The term “support” can mean different things. It may be that they want to use products from a vendor that is known to them. They may want to be able to find more people to hire that have worked on that particular equipment. They may be concerned about enough information being available out there in the way of documentation, forums, books, etc. It is this second point that I want to focus on.

What Does An Ecosystem Bring?

A good ecosystem brings tremendous power when it comes to closing a deal with a customer. Since Cisco holds the largest market share in networking, there are a massive amount of resources out there in the way of their ecosystem when compared to other vendors. Here’s a short list:

1. Large number of resellers(VAR’s).
2. Certification programs
3. Books
4. Message forums
5. Third-party companies that enhance Cisco products
6. Conferences
7. Design guides
8. A MASSIVE marketing machine that produces enormous amounts of videos, blog posts, white papers, etc.
9. Large numbers of networking professionals who are comfortable with their products.

Let’s break down each of those items:

1. Large number of resellers(VAR’s) – The sheer number of Cisco resellers out there means that their products get mentioned to customers all over the world on a regular basis. In my particular city(Nashville,TN), I can name at least 10 different VAR’s that sell for Cisco. That’s a lot of sales reps and a lot of engineers out preaching the Cisco gospel message on a regular basis. Other vendors might only have 1 or 2 VAR’s in the Nashville,TN area selling for them. Those other VAR’s might also sell for Cisco, so it gets to be pretty tough for them. Back in 2012, I had the pleasure of attending a Brocade event at their HQ in Silicon Valley. I happened to be at the same dinner table with one of the Brocade executives, and I asked him what the biggest challenge was for them to take market share from Cisco. His words were basically that their biggest obstacle was simply getting VAR’s to mention their name to customers. When so many VAR’s are leading with Cisco, it makes it hard for vendors like Brocade to win deals if they are never brought up. It pretty much means that the local Brocade sales teams are having to engage customers and then bring in a partner that can close the deal for them. While there are VAR’s that do not sell for Cisco, they are in the minority.

2. Certification programs – When you think of the baseline certification for networking, does the term CCNA come to mind? For most people, I bet it does. On the top end, you have the CCIE certification. This is a certification that is so well respected, that it usually commands an immediate salary increase when someone passes their CCIE lab. Not always, but usually. It isn’t uncommon to see someone achieve their CCIE and then change jobs a few months later due to the better offers that flood in. Entire companies have been formed around Cisco certifications. IP Expert, Internetwork Expert, and others exist to provide third-party training to people in order for them to pass a large number of Cisco certifications. Throw in companies like Global Knowledge, New Horizons, and several others, and you have a pretty decent Cisco training ecosystem out there. Try and find certification classes for other vendors in the networking space and you usually end up looking at training direct from the vendors themselves.

3. Books – Two words. Cisco Press. Find me another networking vendor with anything close to the number of titles put out by Cisco Press. I realize that Cisco Press is not wholly owned by Cisco, but it doesn’t really matter. The books have Cisco logos on them and the association to the vendor is assumed. It isn’t just Cisco Press ether. O’Reilly has several books on Cisco hardware/software as well as do other smaller publishers. Finding a book on a particular Cisco technology or product isn’t hard to do. Juniper is the only other networking vendor I know of that even comes close to matching the number of Cisco related titles out there. HP is off to a start with their publishing arm, but their titles are mostly limited to their ASE/MASE certification programs and there appear to be fewer than 20 titles available across the entire HP Press line.

4. Message forums – These may be dwindling as a whole, but some are still very active. The forums on Cisco’s site are massive and have a large number of people posting questions and answering questions. On a lesser scale, there are other message forum sites with large portions dedicated to Cisco issues. If you have a question and don’t necessarily want to open a support case with Cisco, or didn’t pay for support, one of these forums can usually help out.

5. Third party companies that enhance Cisco products – As someone who recently switched from a Windows phone back to an iPhone, I know the pain of seeing a really cool app and not having it available for a particular platform. One of the main drivers for me going back to the Apple ecosystem was the sheer number of apps that are now available to me. When it comes to third party applications/systems from network management companies, support for Cisco products is pretty much assumed, in the same way that any smart phone app is assumed to support iOS and Android. Whether it is call reporting software, flow data repositories, configuration management, or network monitoring, you can pretty much bet that Cisco will be supported.

6. Conferences – Starting on Sunday, May 18th, Cisco Live will kick off in San Francisco,CA. While not the only Cisco conference in the world, it is the largest. Thousands of networking professionals will descend on San Francisco for several days worth of technical training and informative sessions. The level of detail in some of these sessions is simply astounding. I know of no other vendor that gives that much insight into how their products work on the scale that Cisco does. Almost every product that they sell is also available to see on the expo floor at the show. Product specialists stand ready to sell and tell you about all the whiz-bang features that are supported with that particular product. You can even schedule time to meet with Cisco engineers and discuss any design challenges you are facing. They provide you help for free. It is truly an amazing conference. If you can’t attend in person, they make almost all of the sessions available online for free. They used to charge for them, but in the past several years, they did away with that and now you can watch sessions from all of their conferences around the world for free. Each session is usually about 2 hours, so the amount of information you get is fairly comprehensive.

7. Design guides – In order to appreciate the amount of detail that goes into a standard design guide from Cisco, you really just have to sit down and read one. They are usually several hundred pages and are filled with diagrams, configuration examples, and specific recommendations on how each technology or feature is expected to be implemented. This helps tremendously in the field when implementing new hardware or software. A lot of the guessing is eliminated because most things are spelled out in these design guides. Yes, some of them can be a bit dated, and not every single technology/product is covered, but it is far more comprehensive than any other networking vendor I have seen.

8. Massive marketing machine – When it comes to marketing for networking, Cisco sets the standard. They are at every major technology show. They have more webcasts, webinars, product videos, etc than any of their competition. If you want technical information, their TechwiseTV program is simply unmatched. In short, Cisco is everywhere. White papers, webcasts, product launch events, partner-only training events and conferences, etc. The sheer size and scale of their marketing is mind boggling. I can’t even put it into words how big it is. I tend to check my YouTube subscriptions at least once a week and the Cisco channel always has several dozen more videos uploaded. Whether or not anyone watches them in large numbers is another story, but they crank out a ton of content in videos alone. I’m not saying I agree with all of their marketing. It serves its purpose, even if I disagree with the content or approach sometimes. Somebody, somewhere, is influenced by it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it this way.

9. Large numbers of networking professionals familiar with their products – I rarely see a job posting for a networking person that doesn’t have some Cisco certification listed as a requirement. Almost every single client office I walk into has some piece of Cisco hardware in production. It is a rarity to find a network engineer that isn’t somewhat familiar with a Cisco Catalyst switch. I’m the type of guy who orders the same thing from each restaurant I go to. I find something I like and I stick with it. I do it so much that my wife is constantly trying to get me to try something else, but I rarely do. I like what I like, and I would rather know what I am getting(good and bad), then try something new and be disappointed. I think a lot of people think like that when it comes to choosing Cisco hardware/software. It is familiar to them. They are comfortable with it. They may gripe about software bugs or hardware quirks, but they keep on buying Cisco.

You Want To Compete Against That?

For smaller vendors, what I listed above is a BIG hurdle they have to overcome. The ecosystem drives the Cisco machine. Take away just a few of those things, or do them better, and you can beat Cisco. Yes, it can be done. Riverbed did it. F5 did it. Other vendors have done it as well, to a certain extent. I think in those cases, the technology they offered was compelling enough to overlook the ecosystem. That usually won’t be the case though.

If you want to compete on price, go for it. Be my guest. That will work with some customers, but not all of them. When people are committed to buying Cisco, they aren’t necessarily concerned about the lowest price. The way to beat them is through the ecosystem. You have to convince customers that you can provide a better experience with your products. I took a different stance in the article I wrote back in 2010, but have come to the conclusion that price isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

If I Were Running A Smaller Vendor

Note – I’m a technical person. I’m not in management. I am not in marketing. I am not an accountant. That means I might be a little unrealistic when it comes to how all of this stuff works when it comes to growing the bottom line. I just know what works for me, and that is how I approach the following.

Tell me how it works. That’s all. Tell me as much as you can without giving away your intellectual property and I will be satisfied. Once you have told me how it works, tell me how you expect me to implement it. Give me this information in two modes. High level and low level. I don’t care about all the marketing garbage where you use buzzwords and corner cases to appear like you are so much better than everyone else. I’m tired of that junk and I hate having to sift through all of it to get to the information I really need, if I can even find it. Design guides are a great thing to have. Cisco has plenty of them, and so does Aruba. Even better if they are not hidden behind a registration wall.

Tell me about every product you sell. If I have to open a support case to get information on something as simple as a lightning arrestor for an outdoor wireless access point, I don’t consider that a good thing. Every single product you sell should have some sort of a manual. Whether it is an installation guide or a configuration guide, make it available on your website. Pictures are great too!

I watch a LOT of vendor videos on YouTube. Most of them are so boring that I only make it through about a minute before I move on to something else. My absolute favorite high level videos are the TechWise TV Fundamentals ones that Cisco produces. In a few minutes, I watch Robb Boyd break down a specific technology with nice graphics and a touch of humor. Invest in good video production. Technical people will watch technical videos. I don’t know how many management types sit around and watch a group of marketing folks chat about ROI and other benefits of a given product on YouTube. These people are already triple booked for meetings each day at the office. You really think they take the time to watch an hour long webcast or video filmed in a studio with a roundtable discussion? Of course not. I take note of the number of views on YouTube videos. Unless I am missing something, the number of views on a lot of these videos are abysmal. You would be better served by creating content that actually means something.

Here’s a few examples of content I actually enjoy watching, in addition to the TechWiseTV stuff that Cisco puts out:

1. Aruba Outdoor Wireless Videos – These are great. Something as simple as how Aruba recommends you weatherproof outdoor AP’s are a great example of USEFUL information. You can also find plenty of videos from the Aruba Airheads conference on their YouTube channel and Airheads forum.

2. Tech Field Day – These are usually highly technical presentations from various vendors. Lots of great information found in these sessions.

3. Wireless LAN Professionals Summit – More great technical videos from the first WLP event.

Yes, those are all technical resources. I am a big believer in the “trickle up” effect when it comes to vendors winning over customers. If your IT staff gets excited about a particular vendor, then that information will be relayed up the chain until it hits the decision maker. Don’t overlook the power that the IT staff wields in influencing buying decisions. As long as they can make a great case for your product, you have a pretty good chance of getting it installed in a company.

Closing Thoughts

I should point out that I don’t dislike Cisco. The bulk of my living comes from Cisco. It is a company that I have a tremendous amount of time invested in from a professional development perspective. I’ve seen unbelievable quality from some of their products, and yet I have hurled many an insult at the Java based software they love so dearly. I like the company and many of the products they make. I’m just not naive enough to believe they are the end-all be-all when it comes to all things networking. There are alternatives out there, and each company has to evaluate the available solutions and choose the vendor that meets their needs the best. Due to Cisco’s sheer size and ability to execute, they tend to get the larger share in the marketplace. It isn’t always about who has the best technology.

I love to sell solutions for Cisco, and I love the challenge of selling against them. Well, maybe I love selling against them more, but that has more to do with me liking underdogs over incumbents. As long as it gets the job done, I don’t really care who you go with. I get paid either way. 😉 There are plenty of times when Cisco is going to be the best fit for you. There are other times when they won’t. You have to know how to spot the difference, and the more information a vendor can provide from a technical perspective, the better.

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2 Responses to Winning With Ecosystems

  1. Pingback: Winning With Ecosystems

  2. Devin Akin says:

    This was a great blog Matthew – enjoyed it. I mostly just enjoy selling against Cisco though. The David/Goliath challenge has a certain appeal to it. 😉

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